Early data shows drop in student COVID-19 cases from fall

Jayden Riggs, a sophomore clinical management major, gets tested for COVID-19 on Friday, Feb. 5, 2021, at K-Lair in Haggin Hall in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo by Michael Clubb | Staff

Natalie Parks

Another day, another update: with classes and campus life resuming following the break, UK is once again tracking COVID-19 cases among its student body on a dedicated dashboard.

Data from the first two weeks of class paints a different picture than the start of last semester – cases among UK students are down compared to the same timeframe in the fall. In the first two weeks of the fall semester, the university and local health department reported 353 cases among UK students. Total new cases among UK students in the last two weeks amount to just over half of that, or 186 cases.

Cases dropped from the first week of class, with 118, to the second, at 68. Lower case numbers have emerged in spite of more robust testing. In the fall, reentry testing was only followed up by a round of mandatory testing for Greek life students.

Now, UK is conducting routine testing among all students even after reentry. Thousands will be tested each week as part of the new team-based approach, which will continue throughout the semester.

“I think one of the real lessons we learned last semester is how central testing is because it’s not only that baseline of health, but that then is the platform from which we do all our tracing and assessment of benchmarking the status of our campus,” said UK spokesperson Jay Blanton.

Students agreed that the regular testing is beneficial, though some questioned why UK didn’t implement it sooner.

“I think it’s a lot better than last semester because before it was just the initial testing and then you just got it when you wanted to,” said Jill Steffen, a senior engineering major. Steffen said she thinks the required testing will catch cases earlier so they can quarantine and expose fewer people.

“I think all my friends are ok with – it takes like five minutes, whatever you can do so we can have in-person classes,” Steffen added.

Freshmen Campbell Greenawalt said it would have been better to have the required testing in the fall as well and thinks it is a good strategy.

“A lot of my friends think it’s necessary and keeping our selves healthy, that’s the most important thing,” Greenawalt said.

Though cases during the semester are lower than the fall, case numbers during the reentry period are higher than they were in the fall. UK’s reentry testing in both semesters began about two weeks before the start of class. In the fall, only 110 tests were reported prior to the first day of class. Nearly four times that many – 436 – cases were identified during the reentry phase for the spring.

Most of the cases reported so far came from outside UK’s testing system and were self-reported by students. Of the 752 total cases reported as of Feb. 4, only 260 came from UK’s testing services. The remaining 65 percent of positives were self-reports, likely submitted to UK from students who tested positive over winter break in correspondence with a national surge.

Despite the increased number of tests, UK’s Health Corps – which runs contact tracing and COVID-19 support services for students – has been able to reduce the lag on the dashboard updates. Previously, cases were reported on a three-day lag. Updates this semester have been occurring on a one or two-day lag instead.

“We’ve just dealt with the data more and more our data folks felt comfortable that they could do it. It was one of the critiques I think, last semester and if we try to take the feedback, seriously that is probably I think the most substantive critique,” Blanton said.

Preliminary data on student cases suggests that UK’s spring semester may not bring a spike to Lexington like the fall semester did. Lexington’s COVID-19 cases have shown an erratic decline in the last month. Last semester’s data showed the Health Corps where spread was – and wasn’t – happening on campus.

“We can tell you many of the places that we didn’t see that red happening, classrooms and other types of sort of structured learning spaces,” said Lance Poston, director of the Health Corps.

Classrooms saw little spread because they have organized protocols and sanitization, Poston said, as opposed to unenforceable environments.

“If you follow these protocols and use those spaces in that way, they’re going to be much, much safer. And I think we saw that play out again, in classrooms, we saw very little spread happen among within our residence halls,” Poston said – a byproduct of the university’s existing dorm plans.

“Unlike many of our peer institutions, we’ve got spaces where most of our students in residence halls, even before this year, have their own bedroom and you can have a much more private on campus experience,” Poston said.

Students think the university has managed the pandemic well.

“I think last semester they did really well with everyone wearing masks everywhere and limiting in person activity as much as they could to just reduce cases, this semester, I think they’re doing a good job as well with more COVID testing, and the masks and still allowing more in person events,” said Kaitlin Saban, a freshman dietetics major.

In addition to existing measures, students are hopeful that vaccines will make an impact on campus case numbers.

“I think it’s a good idea to give students the vaccines, because it can help us get through the pandemic faster, just on our campus, and helping eliminate,” Saban said.

According to Blanton, UK has vaccinated around 17,000 UK-affiliated people, the “lion’s share” of which are healthcare workers.

“As we move into subsequent phases, we’ll be in a position, we hope and expect to vaccinate many more people on our campus. And hopefully, that’ll happen over the course of the next couple months,” Blanton said.

Blanton said the university does not currently have plans to create a prioritization list for student vaccinations that would account for risk factors like housing occupancy and students with essential jobs off-campus.

The university is prioritizing students in healthcare colleges, including medical students volunteering at the vaccine clinic.

Poston and Blanton said that students who fall into other prioritized categories, like underlying health conditions, should fill out UK’s vaccine request form.

“Let us know that information so that, when your time comes based on those state guidelines, we’ve got your information, you’re in the system, then you can get an invite,” Poston said. “It’s never too soon to go to ukvaccine.org.”

Hannah Stanley contributed reporting.